Straddling the stage and silver screen

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Published:
26 May 2017
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10 min read
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1901 words
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"I might as well struggle in my country, so I packed my bags and never looked back"

Surprises and serendipities are what make life interesting. Planning every step and hoping for an outcome that might not materialise could ruin your chance of enjoying life, says Anup Baral. Although largely involved in theatre, Baral has starred in a handful of movies too--Kagbeni, Dasdhunga, Badhshala. He is choosy about the characters he portrays and is a self-acknowledged stickler for perfection.  

In this interview with VMAG's Alok Thapa, Baral, the artistic director of the theatre company Actors' Studio, shares that the secret to happiness is to remain interested in what you do and not look back.

What were you like as a kid?
I was not a studious kid. My apathy towards academics stemmed from my struggle to relate to what was being taught; the sterile reality of schools could never hold my attention nor engage my ideas and energies. And you heard me right--I was expelled from most of the schools I have attended. My fondest childhood memory includes bunking classes, spending days by river banks, following street performers and going to the local cinema hall.

When and how did your creative journey start?
My creative journey started when I was still in school. I was fascinated by the many street performances staged during different cultural festivals in Pokhara; they didn't just amuse me, but also sparked my imagination. The elaborately decorated dancers, with their faces painted, would enchant me; I would feel like I was in one of the scenes of Alice in Wonderland. Theatre naturally appealed to me, and I used to love watching movies too.

Do you remember your first acting gig?
I had acted in an amateur play, Timi Bachnu Parcha, written and directed by a friend. I was 14 years old, and like every other teenager, I honestly felt that my acting could change the world. After that, I was seriously involved in amateur theatre. It was also my luck that Sarubhakta, the popular playwright, took me under his wing; working for Pokhareli Yuwa Sanskritik Pariwar (PYSP) was an eye-opening experience. Later, some of us moved away from PYSP to start our own theatre company, Pratiwimba.

What were your parents' take on your acting aspirations?
When children deviate from the tried and true, people will have plenty of things to talk about, and I guess that chatter was bothersome to my mother. I suppose she was nervous about my wanting to become an actor, because it wasn't a secure job. My father was more liberal, partly due to his own involvement in the arts; he always encouraged us to do things that gave us the most satisfaction.

The apple doesn't fall too far from the tree. Tell us about your father's artistic nature.
My father (Durga Baral, better known as Vatsyayan) was a passionate painter. I would spend hours analysing his paintings, which reflected the different facets of society. He was also an avid reader; his library was stocked with books and I loved to flip through them. I would sometimes sneak books to school to show them off to my friends, even though I couldn't make much sense out of the English language back then. I was lucky to have been given an outlet for creative thinking, so the framework of storytelling was instilled in me at a young age.

So you initially wanted to be a theatre actor?
I would put it more like this: I had the urge to act, and I got the opportunity to channel it into theatre. You couldn't be in the movies then because there weren't many movies being made in Nepal. So I was heavily involved in the theatre scene in those days. Of course, it all changed when I attended the National School of Drama (NSD), in India.

Why did you feel the need to drop everything and go to Delhi?
‚ÄčCracks were starting to appear in the already fragile theatre culture in Nepal due to the stiff competition from Bollywood films and various TV channels. You see, the audience was not getting anything new--the theatre, movies and television pretty much spoke the same language. For the local theatre scene to evolve, it was important to inject freshness, and that fuelled my determination to seek academic knowledge. Getting into NSD was a struggle in itself, which, in a way was, a precursor to what Delhi had in store for me.

What were some of the struggles you faced?
I was already a known figure in the local theatre scene, so the first challenge was to leave behind my vanity back in Nepal--that took some time. Then there was the infamous ragging that goes on in the colleges there; I was almost at the brink of quitting everything. But on hindsight, it did help get past my consciousness; in acting, the number one rule is to lose self-consciousness. But I would say that the lowest I felt was when I came back to Nepal and saw the theatre scene in total disarray. Having my seniors tell me that theatre was dead and that I should go back to India didn't exactly help the cause.

And then you landed in Mumbai to try your luck.
For a jobless outsider trying to break into the 'showbiz' world, the 'city of dreams' tag seemed to bespeak a cruel irony. We used to live in government flats as they were cheaper, and some of the established actors of today, like Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Rajpal Yadav, were in the same building. We used to carry an extra pair of clothes because travelling in the local train always meant that you would end up looking shabby. It always helped to carry a portable iron, which we used in public bathrooms to smoothen any wrinkles. It was a tough existence, but I took every single audition as an opportunity to improve my game.

Which was tougher, finding work or finding the 'right kind' of work?
Living in Mumbai was not cheap, so any work was welcome; I even worked in TV serials like Jai Hanuman as an extra. However, serious work always eluded me despite my being fluent in Hindi, and even though I was quite familiar with the culture and had knowledge of their industry. Many don't know this, but I was shortlisted for director Santosh Sivan's film Asoka, but the offer fell through as I had to return to Nepal because my mother fell sick. After that, I did try my luck in a couple of projects, but by then, I had run out of patience to wait for the Bollywood dream to materialise. I thought to myself, I might as well struggle in my country, so I packed my bags and never looked back.

Are you a method actor or do you go by your instincts?
I don't have a particular way of approaching my roles. I do, however, adopt techniques--method or spontaneous acting--according to my director's vision. The only method that works for me is to believe in each moment. I would call myself a director's actor. If I completely believe in the character I am portraying, the audience will believe in it too. If I simply put on an act, I will eventually get caught. About the technique, I feel spontaneous acting is much tougher than method acting--the latter might also sometimes come off as mechanical.

What makes theatre and film different?
Preparing for theatre is completely different from preparing for a film. In a play, after I get the script, I try to fully acquaint myself with it, without being perfect. This allows me to plot a graph of the whole performance and know where I am, and in what emotional state at any given moment. This comes in handy for both the mediums, but theatre is more instantaneous--you react to the act and feed off the audience's energy. Films, on the other hand, are shot out of a sequence, so you have the liberty to ask if you can iron out the awkwardness and try out alternatives.

What's keeping you busy?
I'm busy with the editing work of my new film. Apart from that, I'm also training the new batch of students at Actor's Studio, which reminds me that we are not just here to mass-produce actors and that not every person who comes to us wants to be an actor. See, if you want to be a film journalist, it helps if you have knowledge about the subject you're reporting on. Similarly, it helps if you are a director who knows the subtle nuances of being an actor. The students have such a diverse spectrum of expectations. Also, my ultimate ambition is to go beyond the valley and find the many talents that await discovery--what we see in Kathmandu does not represent the Nepali theatre scene.

How do you see the fate of theatre without the State's help?
It's quite scary to see how little we've progressed. Yes, the government is occupied with other pressing matters, but having said that, the lack of focus with theatre has been prevalent for quite some time. This has only gone on to discourage artists from putting up their best work, and inhibiting them from pushing their artistic limits. Without a paradigm shift in the way theatre artists are regarded, and until theatre gets the respect it deserves, the future of Nepali theatre looks bleak. Despite earning great reviews and the audience's love, the inevitable fate that awaited Gurukul or Theatre Village hangs like an ominous cloud, presaging an uncertain future.